One of the things I’m finding most valuable in writing about my experience with weight is remembering what it was actually like. Even though I lived through it, I don’t often think about how difficult it was, how my weight and the issues around it pervaded my life. I viewed the world through a very specific lens, one attuned to comments and portrayals of weight. As a thin person, even one who has been fat, it is easy to turn a blind eye to the prejudice and connotations surrounding those overweight, all the little things that we simply take for granted as part of our culture.
Take Santa Claus, for instance. Many may remember feeling disillusioned upon learning that Santa isn’t real, and may agonize over what to tell their own children. Some might be bitter about that, or about the fact that perhaps they didn’t get a gift they requested. Some, like Scrooge, may simply disdain the whole concept. But I’m guessing most people don’t think about Santa in relation to how his weight impacts those who are themselves heavy.
To be honest, I haven’t thought much about it recently, either. Although I did notice that in a remake of Miracle on 34th Street, Santa wasn’t actually all that round. Which was a good thing because if he was, he wouldn’t have had much of a lap for children to sit on. (The lap is a strange, magical thing in its own right, disappearing and reappearing in direct correlation to weight.) Then, when I was typing up changes to earlier chapters I’d written about gaining weight, I re-read part of a piece called “The Road to Freedom” that I wrote in early 1996. The section relating to Santa reads:
I think, if I weren’t so gross, I’d be an actress; I’m already so good at pretending. Fulfilling that stupid myth that fat people are jolly, like Santa Claus. Only Santa Claus doesn’t exist, and how should I be jolly when people call me a cow, or porky, or say I’m dull.
I’d forgotten how even a figure as representative of holiday cheer and joy conjured, for me, demons of self-doubt and bitterness because I couldn’t match that jocularity, and I wasn’t loved as Santa was. The sheer raw pain of it strikes me even now, but it was so much worse then. Our society is inordinately cruel, most of the time, to those who are overweight, and most people would not find a belly that “shakes like a bowl full of jelly” very appealing. It’s one thing for a mythical figure, but in reality? That’s another story, and a far less cheerful one.
I also remember Mrs. Claus in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer urging Santa to, “Eat, eat!” because the children wouldn’t want a skinny Santa. That, too, was hard for me to watch, knowing that my encouragement was the opposite; everyone wanted a skinny me, and no one wanted the fat one.
I realize this may sound extreme and over-sensitive, but at the time, it was my reality. Santa Claus was just one of the many barrages on my spirit and self-esteem. As further evidence of how badly damaged I was, this was how the piece I referenced earlier concluded:
I’m not dull; I’m actually too sharp. I’ve cut myself open inside with my razor edges, but as the wounds are internal, no one notices. It’s only a matter of time before I drown, the blood from these wounds pooling into my lungs. There are a few small channels that might carry away the pain, but already I am walling them off. People hurt too much. I don’t want to ever get close again. It’s funny in a way. When I was a kid I was so happy. When I imagined myself grown up, I thought I’d live on a farm with horses, be married, have kids. That’s a laugh. Who would want to marry me? I’m repulsive to myself, so it must be worse for others. No, I won’t even consider it. I won’t kill myself, but I won’t go outside, either. I will stay right here in the safety of my own heart so I will never again have to see that look in someone’s eyes, someone I thought a friend, that says I’m nothing. And if I choke on the blood – well, it won’t matter because I’ll already be gone.
With this memory now clear, I find myself again viewing the world through those old lenses – and it’s not pretty. I’m grateful that I can take them off, but I will keep them close to hand, because it’s important to remember. Even, or sometimes especially, when the memories are painful.